Visual quantification of embolism reveals leaf vulnerability to hydraulic failure


  • Vascular plant mortality during drought has been strongly linked to a failure of the internal water transport system caused by the rapid invasion of air and subsequent blockage of xylem conduits. Quantification of this critical process is greatly complicated by the existence of high water tension in xylem cells making them prone to embolism during experimental manipulation.
  • Here we describe a simple new optical method that can be used to record spatial and temporal patterns of embolism formation in the veins of water-stressed leaves for the first time.
  • Applying this technique in four diverse angiosperm species we found very strong agreement between the dynamics of embolism formation during desiccation and decline of leaf hydraulic conductance.
  • These data connect the failure of the leaf water transport network under drought stress to embolism formation in the leaf xylem, and suggest embolism occurs after stomatal closure under extreme water stress.